John Prine was born on October 10, 1946, in Maywood, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. But his roots were set deep in rural, working class Americans. His parents, William and Verna, were natives of western Kentucky, and his extended family had lived in the long shadow of the coal mining industry there. Prine's father emigrated to Chicago to get away from the dangers and drudgery of the mining life, becoming a tool and die worker and, eventually, the president of a local steelworkers union.
But Prine, the third of four children, spent many childhood summers visiting his relatives in the family seat, a small postcard-perfect country town called Paradise. The music and stories he heard there fired up his imagination. Encouraged to pick up the guitar by his older brother Dave, Prine wrote his first songs when he was 14, two of which, "Sour Grapes" and "The Frying Pan" eventually ended up on his second album, Diamonds In The Rough
The lyric themes that would become the bedrock of his song craft also had their roots in Paradise and the blue-collar struggles and values Prine's parent brought with them to Maywood - an unqualified love of the land and an elemental pride in a job well done; a painful awareness of the toll hard work and shoestring budgets can take on love and family; the simple pleasures that make the big hurts a little more bearable.
When Prine released his eponymous debut in 1971, everyone in the music industry was looking for a new Dylan, and Prine was very much his own man, a plainspoken writer with a keen reporter's eye and a rocker's heart. His songs drew on real life and personal experience as filtered not only through Dylan and the 1960s fold explosion, but also through Prine's early love of Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
"The reason I've been categorized as a folk artist for all these years is my guitar playing," Prine suggests. "I learned from my brother who played folk music. Here I had all these rock 'n' roll records, I wanted to play guitar, and he taught me how to finger-pick and play a Carter Family song. I loved all that stuff, but I never went on from there. As soon as I learned three chords, I had the itch to write right away.
"But I haven't done bad as a folkie," he figures. "To me, rock 'n' roll was always more of an attitude than anything else anyway."
Prine kept the music and attitude mostly to himself after he graduated from high school in 1964. After doing two years with the U.S. Postal Service, he was drafted by the Army and sent to a base in Germany, where he spent 1996 and '67 as the head of the motor pool. Prine took his guitar with him frequently entertained the boys in the barracks. But when his hitch was over, Prine went back to delivering mail.
His life and profession changed in 1970 when Prine finally worked up the nerve to play his songs for an audience, on an open-mike night at a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg. Within a couple of months, he had quit the Postal Service for good and made the acquaintance of Steve Goodman, another local singer-songwriter who was just on the shy side of stardom (his enduring train song, "City of New Orleans," would become a hit for Arlo Guthrie in 1972) and who, out of friendship and deep admiration, set Prine's big break in motion.
In the summer of 1971, Goodman played one of Prine's songs at a gig opening for Kris Kristofferson. Kristofferson was bowled over; Goodman seizing the moment, insisted that Kristofferson accompany him to hear Prine sing at the Earl of Old Town Club. After hours, in a deserted Old Town, Prine played the show of his life.
Suddenly, it was Cinderella time. Prine and Goodman went to New York for the first time to cut some demos for a record deal. The day they arrived, they went to see Kristofferson perform at the Bitter End, where Prine did three songs at Kristofferson's invitation. Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who was in the audience, didn't need much convincing. The next day, he offered Prine a record deal. By the end of 1971, John Prine - produced by Arif Mardin in Memphis and featuring most of the songs that had blown Kristofferson away that night at the Earl of Oldtown - was in stores and on the radio. "I was terrified," Prine says of those sessions (one track, "Paradise," was cut in New York, with Goodman and Dave Prine as guest sidemen). "I went straight from playing by myself, still learning how to sing, to playing with Elvis Presley's rhythm section. It's not an easy album for me to listen to, because I can hear in my voice how uncomfortable I felt at the time. But I loved the sound of the record, and I can see how for a lot of people it's their favorite record of mine."
Much has been said and written about John Prine, nearly all of it in superlatives, and they all still apply. From the spine-chilling candor and imagery of "Sam Stone" and the bittersweet still lifes "Hello In There" and "Angel From Montgomery" to the droll dopers' hymn "Illegal Smile" and "Spanish Pipedream" with its immortal "blow up your TV" chorus, Prine displayed a narrative ingenuity and emotional sensitivity that was breathtaking in someone so young and new to recording. Indeed, Prine quickly struck a universal nerve. Bette Midler and Bonnie Raitt covered "Hello In There" and "Angel From Montgomery," respectively, and one night in 1972, Bob Dylan himself showed up at a Prine gig in New York, playing harp and harmonizing on "Sam Stone." To this day, Prine can't get through a live show without playing three or four songs from that album. Although not as immediately well-received as the first album, Diamonds In The Rough - recorded and mixed, according to Prine, in three days for a total of $7,200, including beer - was actually closer to the country-folk tradition that, as a young listener and later as a budding writer, he first called home. It was, in essence, John Prine-in-the-rough, a superb collection of tunes and tales recorded with acoustic, no-frills living room elegance. Steve Goodman and David Bromberg traded campfire guitar licks. Dave Prine made it a family affair on dobro, banjo, and fiddle. Prine let his Hank Williams fixation run a little freer, too, in the truck stop jukebox jewel, "Yes Guess They Oughta Name A Drink After You". And in the potent protest waltz "The Great Compromise." "I wanted to write a song that had some talkin' in it," he says of the latter. "I used to really like Hank's Luke The Drifter records."
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